Can the dream stay alive for another generation?
“You know, this is really the only thing I know I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”
That was my daughter Hannah, a rising senior at Tuscola. She’s had a lifelong gift for coming up with sweeping, profound declarations that make Lori and I laugh first and then ponder later.
She’s talking about being a guide at Folkmoot, which she is this year for the first time. The guides get to spend the entire 12-day festival with their group, eating and sleeping at the Folkmoot Friendship Center, helping the groups make it on time to all their performances and making sure all their other needs are taken care of.
And she’s not stretching the truth about this being something she’s dreamed of for years. We moved to Haywood County in 1992, and every year we’ve been to Folkmoot performances. Lori is a foreign language teacher, and so my family was especially drawn to Folkmoot. My first boss in Waynesville, Ken Wilson, was an early supporter of Folkmoot, so I also got drawn into the festival under his influence.
So each year that I’ve lived in the mountains, we’ve taken part in the festival: the parade (see accompanying photo), paid performances, school programs, picnics, International Festival Day, late-niters, and more. My kids were hooked from the time they were toddlers.
For weeks after each Folkmoot, we would be entertained by “performances” in the yard or living room by the same groups who just left, all with elaborate costumes and choreographed moves. Even now both Hannah and her sister Megan count down the days until the festival. Hannah has been volunteering each of the past three years, patiently biding time until she was old enough to be considered for the guide’s job.
But I’m worried. As a fan, a board member and a former board president, I’m not so sure we’ll be able to keep bringing the same festival to Western North Carolina for the next generation of children (see story page 6). If other toddlers hatch a similar dream, it may not reach fruition.
The truth is that Folkmoot — from a purely business perspective — loses money every year. We take in less in ticket sales and other revenue than it costs to put the festival on. Back in its early days, Folkmoot received state funding of up to $100,000 a year. For more than a decade or so that funding fluctuated, but it was at least $25,000 and most times more.
Folkmoot’s early supporters were hard-working dreamers who wanted to create a sustainable international folk dance festival unique to the United States. They were also very smart. They created the Border Foundation to support the festival in hard times. This fund grew to as high as $900,000 in the pre-recession days. Folkmoot has been able to use the fund to make up its $50,000 to $75,000 shortfall each year.
But times have gotten tough. The foundation now has about $460,000. If the festival continues to draw from that pool of money each year without replenishing it, we’ll wipe out the foundation account in five years or so.
Or, Folkmoot could change. Chances are many larger communities would cough up $75,000 a year to host a festival that already has a stellar international reputation, is a perennial tourist draw, provides an economic boost, and enhances the quality of life for locals.
No one is talking about moving, though, so perhaps Folkmoot could just get a lot smaller. It could host three or four groups for a week, holding fewer performances. That would lower costs but it would also lower revenues. Or the festival could become “ethnic,” meaning we could invite international dance groups that live in the U.S. but try to carry on the traditions of their homeland. That would also save some money.
All of these are options. I can vouch for one truth — Folkmoot is frugal with its money. We do everything from begging for food at farmer’s markets to having performers dance two or three times in a single day in order to bring in revenue. But cultural events of this magnitude almost always lose money and depend on government and corporate help. We have generous local sponsors, but we just don’t have the pool to draw from that organizations in places like Raleigh and Charlotte have.
I could talk all day about the value of the cultural exchange that is now taking place for the 29th straight summer here in these mountains. My daughter is learning invaluable lessons, and the performers from around the world learn about us. I would venture that our visitors probably leave with a much different — and more positive — view of America than the one they came here with, a view much different than the one they get back home.
Western North Carolina values its history and its past, but we also embrace change. I think that’s one of the reasons Folkmoot has been successful. The festival is about celebrating culture, and this region is probably as close to its roots as any place in the U.S. Over the next few years, however, we will have to decide if this festival will remain a part of what makes WNC unique. If we want it, then it’s going to need more support than it gets now.